Cyril’s SONA: Sexy Neoliberalism Is Back, Baby! Awooo!

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng congratulates President Cyril Ramaphosa after he was sworn in as the President of South Africa. 15/02/2017, Elmond Jiyane, GCIS

Well. That was different, wasn’t it? President Cyril Ramaphosa. An undisrupted State of the Nation Address. Julius Malema giggling like a lovestruck teenager. And the promises. Oh, the promises. If the new president didn’t promise to come to your derelict house and fix the broken light switches himself, you must be the only South African left out.

President Cyril Ramaphosa. It is still taking some getting used to. President Cyril Ramaphosa… The tongue wraps clumsily around the syllables, and spills them out hesitantly and unconvincingly. Is that right? One checks the news websites. Yes, it is right. President. Cyril. Ramaphosa.

It is all so new and strange. Well, not new. But this collegial State of the Nation Address business has not happened since 2014, so South Africans can be forgiven for forgetting how it goes.

That was the immediate question of the day, wasn’t it? Would it be another circus? Would the parliamentary bouncers be brought in again to evict the Economic Freedom Fighters? There was an early moment of worry. The EFF members of parliament bounded into national assembly in high spirits, singing a song that was aggressively negative of Ramaphosa.

But no more than a minute into the speech, the tensed shoulders and furrowed brows around the country had relaxed. Ramaphosa was somehow bantering gently with EFF leader Malema, who was grinning from ear to ear. The ferociously angry revolutionary and his ferociously angry comrades were not going to fight. State of the Nation Addresses are – at last – no longer the grand theatre of bloody combat. Small mercies…

It was all so strange and new, and yet when it came to the facts of the matter, it was much of the same. You will have recognised any one of Ramaphosa’s policy talking points if you have been engaged in politics since before the Zuma years. Our new president announced – to an almost pathetic level of gratitude from the crowd crammed into the national assembly – that the old, Mbeki, neoliberal years are back. Politics is good again, baby!

Sure, he made sure to say out certain policies from the ANC’s 54th national conference. Expropriation of land without compensation. Radical economic transformation. Free higher education (okay, perhaps not quite an ANC conference resolution, but it basically is now). But not on one of these points was there any sort of firm content. Yeah, sure, those are things we have plans to do. Some of the colour will be filled in during the budget speech next week Wednesday. Some of it will be kicked down to a commission or a cabinet committee or just a pinky-promise from the president that he’ll eventually get to it.

Each of these progressive policies were hedged, or qualified, or mumbled away. This SONA wasn’t about any of that, not really…

7 Quotes From President Cyril Ramaphosa’s SONA

HEY! Speaking of the budget speech, if you got a strong hunch from that speech that the finance minister Malusi Gigaba may find himself rapidly out a job, you are not alone. Ramaphosa made certain, pointed remarks about state corruption that made it clear that certain cabinet ministers and agency heads are going to need to gouge the last few years out of their CVs if they intend ever finding honest employment again.

He said: “Many of our state owned enterprises are experiencing severe financial, operation and governance challenges, which has impacted on the performance of the economy and placed pressure on the fiscus. We will intervene decisively to stabilise and revitalise state owned enterprises. The recent action we have taken at Eskom to strengthen governance, root out corruption and restore its financial position is just the beginning. Government will take further measures to ensure that all state owned companies fulfill their economic and developmental mandates.”

That’s Gigaba surely gone. He was personally responsible, as public enterprises minister back in the day, for appointing some of these SOE boards of directors that took charge of procurement, which thereafter were suddenly bent towards the Gupta-Zuma state capture network. As finance minister, he lied to The Government Employees Pension Fund (which owns and controls the Public Investment Corporation) last year when he said that it would not be dipped into to bolster Eskom. This is exactly what happened earlier this month. Thanks for the shiny, ‘dodgy charismatic pastor’ suits and the Instragram drama too, comrade.

Mosebenzi Zwane must also be sensing the whish of the executioner’s axe. He is far, far too wrapped up in the looting of the Estina dairy farm project to think he can survive the coming cull of the Zuma cabinet.

Oh, and Bathabile Dlamini must surely realise she is done as social development minister. Ramaphosa said: “Social grants remain a vital lifeline for millions of our people living in poverty. We will urgently take decisive steps to comply with the all directions of the Constitutional Court. I want to personally allay fears of any disruption to the efficient delivery of this critical service, and will take action to ensure no person in government is undermining implementation deadlines set by the court.” This is the opposite of what Dlamini has done with regards to this crisis.

Sabres were rattled at the national director of public prosecutions Shaun Abrahams and the South African Revenue Services commissioner Tom Moyane too. (Both are in a just a little bit of a better position to save their jobs.)

But it isn’t the constitutionalists who would have loved this SONA best. The pants-wetting was almost entirely reserved for the businessman. The international investor. Oh, Cyril the multimillionaire is your man, alright. On the economy, this was smack-down-the-middle, emerging economy neoliberalism. Economic Advisory Panel? Sorted my son, I have every CEO on speed dial. Youth wage subsidy? I’ll browse the DA website for the content myself. Re-industrialisation? Boet, sorted faster than you can translate ‘sorted’ into Afrikaans. And let’s do TOURISM! The economy needs more barefoot Germans wandering around on Long Street, chanas.

“Business confidence among South African companies has improved and foreign investors are looking anew at opportunities in our country,” Ramaphosa said. “Some financial institutions have identified South Africa as one of the hot emerging markets for 2018. Our task, as South Africans, is to seize this moment of hope and renewal, and to work together to ensure that it makes a meaningful difference in the lives of our people.”

Add in the promise to have a look at how ministries the country has, and suddenly another light bulb goes off: Ramaphosa was once the chairman of the National Development Commission. This is all the National Development Plan. We could very well see the announcement of an economic “super-ministry” very soon! Not entirely off-topic: did you see the images of Ramaphosa jogging alongside Trevor Manuel on the Sea Point Promenade earlier this week? Does that possibly mean something?


Time will tell. The SONA is always a broad outline. It is in the budget speech that the colour is filled in. We shall see next week.

Featured Image via the GCIS